Throughout art history, the role of the muse has been critical as a source of inspiration to artists of all styles, movements, and media. It's a role that has been extensively documented, with such famous examples as Edie Sedgwick, muse to Andy Warhol; Lee Miller, to Man Ray; and Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal, who inspired many of the Pre-Raphaelites. There is great intrigue that surrounds these relationships, to the extent that many of them have since become the subject of books, exhibitions, and films.
It is important to consider, therefore, what makes the muse different from any other subject; what compels the artist to spend years studying the same person, exploring their many facets through various modes of portrayal. The artist-muse relationship is one of complex co-dependence, whereby the artist draws upon the somewhat intangible allure of their subject, and the muse is elevated and transformed through the eyes of the artist; it is instinctive, private, capricious, visceral.
Unsurprisingly, many of these relationships are romantic in nature, where the muse is a wife or lover. But why is it that the muse depicted in popular culture is so often a female beauty? We know that in the course of art history there have been eminent female artists, and gay artists, so there must have been men - intriguing, alluring, powerful - that inspired them. What is the effect when the typical artist-muse gender roles are inverted? Does this reverse find expression in the artist’s practice or influence the manner in which she depicts her subject matter
Yoko Ono and John Lennon were one of the most notorious artistic couples of the twentieth century. Ono famously inspired Lennon (and collaborated on many songs, including the hugely successful ‘Imagine’); however, Lennon also served as muse for Ono, who was an established artist in her own right at the time of their meeting. Lennon once described his wife as “The most famous unknown artist in the world: everyone knows her name but no one knows what she actually does”. But did he eclipse her, and did this influence her practice? As a founding member of The Beatles, John Lennon was - is - a global household name (he once irreverently joked that they were “More popular than Jesus”). However, through Ono's eyes, we see a different side of him, deliberately refracting the intense glare of his celebrity. Consider Ono’s shoot, Smile, also known as Number 5 (1968), a 52-minute film, which records her late husband John Lennon gazing serenely at the camera as his expression gradually transforms into a smile. As the viewer we are physically so close to the subject that he is seen almost without sensory intermediary. There is a depth of intimacy that makes this otherwise abstract work profoundly generous. Lennon, for a time, is not portrayed not as a superstar, but as human: Ono’s inspiration and muse. We, and Yoko, are waiting for Lennon’s smile. It is a human moment amplified, dilated, and deeply explored; it is without ego, performance or embellishment. Such is the power of the male muse.
Amrita Sher-Gil is considered to be one of India’s most celebrated and gifted artists of the pre-colonial era. At the age of sixteen, Sher-Gil and her sister were taken to further their artistic education in Paris, where she met the artist Boris Taslitzky at Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Taslitzky became Sher-Gil's muse and artistic companion. The pair shared many of the same ideals, despite coming from very different backgrounds: allegedly Taslitzky was once warned by Sher-Gil's mother not to ever touch her. However, the charged energy between them is palpable in the artist's studies of Taslitzky - particularly in 'Young Man with Apples' (1932), where he is portrayed as rugged and angular, his shirt billowing, the colour palette moody. He holds the fruits - an age-old reference to sexuality - in his palms, which rest in his lap, as he gazes downwards somewhat broodingly.
The famously tempestuous relationship between the Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and her long-term mentor, and later husband, Diego Rivera is another example of such an artistic exchange between a couple. They married in 1929, when Kahlo was 22 and Rivera was 42, and their subsequent relationship involved miscarriage, mutual infidelity, divorce, remarriage, and a fantastic amount of artwork. Rivera was the driving force behind much of Kahlo’s work. In her painting ‘Frida and Diego Rivera’ (1931), Kahlo depicts them standing together, holding hands: her gazing into the distance and Rivera holding a palette with brushes in his other hand. The fact that he is holding these tools, symbols of his status as an artist, shows her deference to him as the maestro (despite the fact that she has produced this painting herself); she is diminutive, her feet unnaturally small, beside his robust and bulky frame. This immediately prompts us to ask questions about the dynamicof their relationship and the context of the work; does she want to be perceived as delicate and doting, as the wife of the famous artist?
Is it a devotional painting, to laud him and as such demonstrate her love for him? It is curious that she should depict herself in this way when we know her character to be one of power, independence, and vivacity. Is she, therefore, deliberately hewing to these gender tropes? Suddenly this seemingly simple work offers a much greater insight to the most private and intimate machinations of their relationship.
Not all female artists were so quiescent; the prominent female artist Sylvia Sleigh actively sought to subvert this prevailing gender dynamic of male artist and female model. As an important part of the New York feminist art scene in the 1960s and '70s, Sleigh was known for her explicit and frequent depictions of male nudes. In 1973, she painted ‘The Turkish Bath’, a reimagining of Jean Auguste Dominique-Ingres’ 1862 painting of the same title, which depicted nude men in place of women. Sleigh’s models for the painting were contemporary art critics, including her second husband, British art critic and curator Lawrence Alloway. In an interview she was quoted as saying, “I wanted to give my perspective, portraying both sexes with dignity and humanism. It was very necessary to do this because women had often been painted as objects of desire in humiliating poses. I don’t mind the ‘desire’ part, it’s the ‘object’ that’s not very nice.” Not only did Sleigh challenge these gender roles through her work but she also successfully asserted her place within the then heavily male-dominated art world.
The infamous Siberian performance artist Marina Abramović has in recent years become something of a superstar (even appearing in Jay Z’s music video in 2013) – more famous in her own right than for the work produced with her former partner and lover Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen). After meeting in 1976, Abramović and Ulay went on to produce more than a decade of influential collaborative work - together they have been dubbed the greatest duo in the history of performance art (incidentally, now also the subject of a recent film that traces the art of their love story). The main concepts they explored were the ego and artistic identity; together they devised a series of performance works that involved physical human endurance and interaction, between themselves and with their audience. ‘The Great Wall Walk’ (1988) was the last of their joint performances. After several years of tension, Abramović and Ulay ended their relationship – fittingly at the conclusion of a performance. The 90-day-long piece, during which the artists walked from either end of the Great Wall of China to meet in the middle, was originally intended to end with a wedding. Ulay started from the Gobi Desert and Marina walked from the Yellow Sea. They did not speak for decades after. However, in 2010 the couple were reunited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art when Ulay made a surprise appearance at Abramovic’s endurance-based performance ‘The Artist is Present’ (which, incidentally, was an independent reworking of a durational piece ‘Nightsea Crossing’ that they had earlier performed together between 1981-7) suggesting, perhaps, that the influence of the muse never leaves the artist.